O Pioneers, O Readers

April 18, 2012 - 2:35 pm 1 Comment

I mentioned on Twitter a few weeks back that I’d picked up Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! at my local library for the simple fact that it had no cover. Apparently, there was a huge hole in my literary experience; I’d never even heard of Cather and I’ll admit it, because I have no idea how it happened. Within moments – and I do mean moments – I got at least three tweets back asking, telling, wanting to discuss Cather’s works, and I’d never read any of them. It seemed to me that everyone had been made to read My Antonia in high school, and I use the term “made” loosely: after reading My Antonia almost all of those who tweeted at me had gone on to read O Pioneers of their own accord.

I can see why.

When I was a little girl, I did love Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. Let’s be honest, though, even in the nineties I didn’t know two many kids my age who didn’t. O Pioneers hearkened back to all that, the simplicity of living off of the land, the love of nature, of the animals, and of the communities and dynamics of the people who live there. Cather goes deeply into the interactions of people from incredibly different backgrounds and how that affects their relationships while they try to eek out a living from the wild land. The family the story mostly follows, The Bergsons, are Swedish immigrants. Immediately you know these are practical people, willing to do whatever they have to to get what they need. They aren’t cold, but they aren’t flamboyant. Alexandra, the business-minded daughter and sister has only her family’s best interests at heart.

As the book progresses, we’re introduced to many others living on the prairie. Marie Shabata nee Tovesky is a Bohemian girl who is Marie’s best friend and her polar opposite, falling head-over-heels in love with the first man who comes along, a source of conflict later on. But I won’t go into that. It’ll ruin the surprise. Those in the French community are the antithesis of the Scandinavian families, eager to embrace anything new, eager to dance and sing, eager to live life to the fullest and practicality be damned.

The story spans four parts and changes greatly among the years that pass between them, but oddly enough, it’s not the story that keeps you reading this little novel. It is the character of the prairie as a whole, the characters of the people who live there, and how they strive to work together despite their differences of the people they were and the differences in the people they become. I didn’t expect to get as emotionally involved in this book as I did, but part IV had me feeling everything: anger, sadness, loneliness, resolution. There were passages where I wanted to argue openly with characters, wanted to shake my head and ask them how they could possibly feel that way, after all they had seen, and done, and said.

Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! is perfect late-spring reading. It’s easy to fall into, quick to read, and will have you thinking for hours after you turn the last page. It’ll have you staring wistfully out of the window and onto the breezy street and even though a century of years and miles of space separate you and that open, lonely Nebraskan prairie, you’ll share something with it. You’ll understand. I did.

One Response to “O Pioneers, O Readers”

  1. Kris Says:

    sums up almost exalcty the technique that makes her novel both unique and unusual. Instead of writing the story from her heroine’s point of view, or from the point of view of an omniscient narrator, Cather instead creates a bystander, the likeable and somewhat innocent Jim Burden, who has written down a series of memories where his and Antonia’s lives intersect; My Antonia is a biography through the mask of autobiography. While this is Jim’s story as much as it is Antonia’s (she is barely mentioned at all in Book III), we are ultimately studying a much-loved thing of beauty from all sides from the distance separating it and the observer. Although My Antonia relates a number of exciting, sentimental, horrifying, and even scandalous incidents (none of which will be divulged here), Cather very deliberately chose to write a character novel rather than an action story. Many of the book’s pivotal events happen offstage; we learn what has happened only when Jim hears about Antonia or runs into her at a gathering or stops by her home. Such a detached approach is a departure from that used by many of the American naturalists (e.g., Dreiser, Lewis) writing during this period, yet her book is surely a model of realism. As Jim writes when he notes his reluctance to visit Antonia when they are both grown, Some memories are realities, and are better than anything that can ever happen to one again. As with all of Cather’s novels, the prairie town of Black Hawk (which, is of course, Cather’s hometown of Red Cloud), is populated with a variety of hirelings and homesteaders, dreamers and pretenders, romantics and scoundrels. (Cather seldom sketched a character as downright wicked as the would-be rapist Wick Cutter.) But none of the townsfolk outshine either the affectionate, if platonic, rapport between Jim and Antonia or the unforgettable portrayal of Antonia herself.

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